“Zo, li mache”
— a Haitian proverb
"The Bones, They Walk" by Miranda, Gabriel
I know I’m not supposed to be here.
At least, that’s what I tell myself. I tell myself my is skin too white to be Caribbean, my words too clean from the grit found in our shared roots to be called real. I guess the best way to say this is I’ve fallen prey to the colonial project, to its divisiveness and the way it makes you question who you are.
I tell myself I’m not supposed to be here, at a festival to celebrate the family of lwa Erzili. I’m not fit to celebrate the spirits of love because love left me a long time ago. The story of Spanish conquest is not unknown, you don’t need to hear it again from me.
What you do need to hear is how wrong it is to cut yourself form your own shared root. How other plants will send life to support that selfsame root whose stem had been severed.
I’m on a roof of an old industrial building turned event space in Prospect Lefferts Gardens feeling compelled to dance. The drums are thundering and the Haitian woman’s song is electrifying the air. My vision is hazy, my heart storming in time with the music’s tempo. Dum-tatucum-dum tacum dum. Vibrating my bones, the rhythm pulls my blood like the tide.
I don’t remember too much about what happened next.
I remember colors and lights. Rose petals in a whirlwind of summer fervency. I remember the breath of bittersweet tears like sweat rolling down my face. Calls of ayibobo! sounded in my ears as the heady rush of Lotion Pompeia filled my nose. There was nothing but the ghosts of roses swirling past my skin, head thrown back as my hand ran down my neck. It wasn’t me. My limbs moved but I couldn’t make out how. All I knew was that in that moment, my body was not mine alone.
I do remember what happened after.
I fall back from a circle of people who are holding space for those who are being taken by the spirit of the dance. I stumble, completely and utterly exhausted, into the waiting hands of a kind Haitian woman I had met earlier in the night.
“Gabriel, are you okay? Ayo, move, come this way! Do you need water?”
I shake my head. My head is too full of rumbling petals and tears.
“Ah, no I think I’m okay. Let me just sit down.”
She brings me over to a stool while others crowd around to help her carry me. My legs are heavy, my body listless as if the spirit took with her all of my strength.
Another woman comes near to me. She seems to be a friend of the first woman I met that evening. They speak with great love in Creole and I am able to understand a few words here and there with the help of my college French.
The new woman looks over to me and smiles.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m alright. I’m still very tired and a little woozy but otherwise I think I’m good.”
She laughs gently, “Yes, they can do that to you.” She takes a moment to look at me. I feel anxiety rippling across my skin. Not from her — no, her eyes are too warm for that — but from within me.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me to dance like that. It happened so suddenly though I didn’t want to do anything that offended the tradition.”
She smiles and scoffs lightly. “No, no, you danced beautifully. I could see what had happened. Where are you from? You moved with steps similar to our own.”
“I was born and raised here in the city but my family is from Puerto Rico.”
Her lips shape into a knowing tilt, I imagine her eyes shining a bit brighter. “You know some Creole too? You looked like you understood some things.”
“Ah no, not Creole mais je parle un peu de Français. C’est pour ça que je peux comprendre.”
A hearty laugh leaves her and she looks over to her friend beside her.
“Same root then.”
Simple as that.
No grandiose explanation. No judgment. No pushing away for not being a part of the larger community. No gatekeeping. No need, even, to unnecessarily coddle one twenty-something year old’s bruised identity. With one clean phrase the mental gymnastics of belonging was paused mid-flight.
Here on a rooftop in the heart of Brooklyn, people who’ve come from places so unique are gathered to dance for love. People born from islands vastly different from one another, whose histories are ripe with their own villains and heroes, their own spirits and lovers. Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba.
Nacido de la misma raíz.
Né de la même racine.
Born from the same root.
There’s nothing left to wonder then. We are the diaspora of a people torn from their lands. A people shored up in foreign places taking root in remembrance. Drumming wildly into the night whether in our island's past or here, this island that once too belonged to others before us.
I guess I am right where I am supposed to be.